Wednesday, February 21, 2018
PGA Tour Preview: Honda Classic
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An emotional Bubba Watson, after sinking an eight-foot par putt on the 72nd hole to secure his first victory in two years, collapsed into the arms of his long-time caddie. The popular left-hander began the day with the lead, but fell behind on the back nine before securing victory by holing a bunker shot for birdie on the par-3 14th hole, and then following up a monster drive with a two-putt birdie on the par-5 17th.
It was Watson's 10th career win and his 3rd at the Genesis Open. His last win was the 2016 Genesis, and in the meantime Watson stated in a post-round interview that he had definitely considered retirement. I would imagine those plans are now on hold.
Speaking of retirement, the ageless 47-year-old Phil Mickelson was in the mix late until consecutive bogeys ended his chances. Patrick Cantlay and Kevin Na also made runs, but Watson's experience on the fast and firm Riviera Country Club ended up as the difference-maker.
A strong field, enthusiastic galleries, and superb weather all combined to create an exciting end to the PGA Tour's West Coast Swing. Tiger Woods looked lost during a 5-over par 76 in the second round that led to a missed cut for the former top ranked player in the world. He'll continue to try to work his way back into form at this week's Honda Classic, played near his home in South Florida.
Palm Beach Gardens, Florida
PGA National (Champion) - Par 70
During the era of celebrity sponsorship of PGA tour events, what is now the Honda Classic began as the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic in 1972. Gleason's name was on the tournament until 1980 and the event has had its current sponsor since 1982. After moving from Inverrary Country Club following the 1983 tournament, the Honda bounced around to several courses before finding what is now considered a permanent home at the PGA National Champion Course in 2007. The course is characterized by breezy conditions that make accuracy difficult.
The signature stretch of holes 15 through 17 is known as "The Bear Trap," named for Jack Nicklaus, who performed some redesign work on the course. The holes are famous for their tough pin placements and challenging water hazards to concern the players down the stretch. Nicklaus is the only player to win the tournament in consecutive tries, having accomplished the feat in 1977 and 1978. The first two events were won by major winners Tom Weiskopf and Lee Trevino, and in addition to Nicklaus, they've been joined by the likes of Johnny Miller, Larry Nelson, Tom Kite, Hale Irwin, Curtis Strange, Fred Couples, Vijay Singh, Mark O'Meara, and Padraig Harrington.
* Nineteen of the top 26 finishers from last year's tournament are in the field
* Two of the top 10, 6 of the top 20, and 23 of the top 50 in FedEx Cup points
* Three of the top 10, 8 of the top 20, and 20 of the top 50 in the World Golf ranking
* Twenty-two countries represented
* Six colleges have four or more former players represented: Oklahoma State (7), Georgia (7), Georgia Tech (5), Florida (5), Alabama (4), Auburn (4)
Bob Estes (52)
Sam Burns (21)
Major Champions (17)
Tiger Woods (14), Rory McIlroy (4), Padraig Harrington (3), Retief Goosen (2), Jimmy Walker, Graeme McDowell, Adam Scott, Justin Thomas, Keegan Bradley, Martin Kaymer, Lucas Glover, Jim Furyk, Webb Simpson, Louis Oosthuizen, Jason Dufner, Sergio Garcia, Stewart Cink
Total Tour Victories
333 (Tiger Woods, 79)
Total Major Victories
36 (Tiger Woods, 14)
Padraig Harrington, (2), Adam Scott, Luke Donald, Camillo Villegas, Rory Sabbatini, Rory McIlroy, Michael Thompson, Russell Henley, Ricky Fowler
He's not flashy and generally plays in the shadow of fellow players Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth,k and Ricky Fowler, but Justin Thomas is quietly putting together another strong and consistent season. In six official starts, the reigning FedEx Cup and PGA champ has yet to miss a cut and hasn't finished outside the top 22 in any event. He already has a win and stands in 9th place in the FedEx Cup and 4th in the Official World Golf Rankings. Thomas is coming off a tie for 9th at the Genesis and received very little air time as Bubba Watson broke his winless streak and Phil Mickelson was contending. This guy has the kind of game that will allow him to be around for a long time, barring injury. He's long and can make putts when he needs to.
With eight holes remaining in his second round at the Genesis Open, Tiger Woods sat inside the eventual cut line of 2 over par, having managed to almost balance 4 bogeys with 3 birdies to stand at 1 over par. However, the next three holes were nightmares and by the time he stood on the 14th tee, a brutal par 3, he was 4 over par, and almost assuredly done for the week. There was hope for Tiger after his top-25 finish at the Farmers Insurance Open, but his putting was balky and the rust was definitely showing at Riviera. Most analysts that are ex-players express the opinion that Woods needs to play his way back into competitions and he'll get that chance with a second consecutive start at the Honda Classic, not far from his Jupiter home.
What to Look For
For many years, as this tournament struggled to find a home and with a World Golf Championship event the following week, the field was not necessarily as stellar as a number of other PGA Tour events. It's still victimized by its place in the schedule, but Jack Nicklaus' involvement and more certainty about the location has helped attract higher-caliber players.
With the Masters just six weeks away, many players are looking to play their way into form for the majors season. Justin Thomas, Ricky Fowler, Rory McIlroy, and Sergio Garcia bring plenty of attention to the tournament.
With the winds, tight fairways and plentiful water hazards, ball striking is particularly important as evidenced by the list of past winners. Length off the tee is not nearly as important as placement, so I would expect the winner to hit a high percentage of fairways and greens, taking advantage of a hot week of putting. The Bear Trap always adds drama to the end of the tournament, with a lot of trouble lurking as players attempt to navigate their way to victory.
Last year, Ricky Fowler began the final round with a four shot lead, struggled on the front nine, then recovered down the stretch to retain the margin for a big victory.
Kevin Krest is the author of the entertaining PK Frazier series of sports suspense novels and the co-host of the weekly "The Cold Hard Truth: On Sports" broadcast. His books can be found on Amazon.com.